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The Legend of El Tiante

Luis Tiant's reputation lives on in New England, where he is forever linked to the 1975 Boston Red Sox, one of the best teams in the franchise's frustrating twentieth-century history
Gordon Mott
From the Print Edition:
Entourage, July/August 2009

The line of eager fans stretches away from the simple booth where cigars are passed out. Around the 50,000-square-foot ballroom in Connecticut's MGM Grand at Foxwoods, other lines back up for a handshake with Carlos Fuente Jr., Rocky Patel or Tim Ozgener of C.A.O. or some of the dozen other cigar makers present that night. But the star at this particular booth, off to one side of the ballroom, has people lining up for more than cigars—they've come to shake the hand and get the autograph of one of the biggest sports icons in the Northeast: Luis Tiant, the former star pitcher for the Boston Red Sox.

"I take care of everybody," Tiant has said earlier in the evening, during an interview at a small casino bar. "You have to be happy. The fans feel for you. They know more about you than you do about yourself. They want to shake your hand. It makes you feel good."

The smile beneath his unmistakable, horseshoe-shaped mustache belies his joy that night. By 9:30, after three hours of shaking hands, signing autographs, putting his arms around fan after fan for a picture, the 69-year-old former baseball great is still smiling, still enjoying every moment, every contact with his many fans.

For Luis Tiant, that's what life is about today—staying in touch with his past, and having a good time. Every day.

If you are old enough to remember Watergate, Gerald Ford as president of the United States and you're a Red Sox fan, you can't forget the 1975 World Series when the Boston Red Sox came close to breaking the jinx that had kept them from winning baseball's biggest prize since 1918. Tiant won two games that series, and he was the starting pitcher in Game 6, often called one of the greatest games in baseball history, clinched by Carlton Fisk with a walk-off home run in the 12th inning.

You also can't help but remember Tiant's pitching motion, one of the most unusual in baseball history. The Cuban-born hurler, coming off a couple of average years in the major leagues, began to embellish his trademark back-to-the-plate windup in the mid-1960s. Tiant would glance to the sky, to the center field bleachers, to anywhere but toward the batter. Then he would whip around and it was anyone's guess where the ball would emerge from—sometimes it was sidearm, sometimes from all arm angles—as he delivered the ball to home plate.

"I had always turned my back to the plate a little," says Tiant. "But then I started looking up, and all around." The oddball delivery was stunningly effective. "I won 179 games after I started using that motion," he says. Tiant played for Cuba's Havana Sugar Kings as well as the Mexico City Tigers, and showed great promise as a 19-year-old in Mexico. In 1961 the Cleveland Indians purchased his contract. He burst onto the major leagues in 1964 with Cleveland, pitching a 3-0 shutout in his first game as he took on Whitey Ford and the New York Yankees. Tiant would win 71 percent of his games that season, going 10-4 with an ERA of 2.83, but his rookie year was far from easy. He had left Cuba as Fidel Castro rose to power, and when he began to ply his athletic skills in the United States, he was unable to return to his homeland. "I left my family, I suffered. When I left I didn't know if I would ever go back," he says. Tiant wouldn't see his mother and father for more than 14 years.

Finally, in 1975, Castro agreed to let Tiant's parents travel to the United States for that iconic World Series. They would remain until their deaths, but ironically their presence kept their son from returning after Cuban-Americans were allowed to make visits to the island. He no longer had immediate family members in Cuba, a requirement for eligibility.

"It's a sad thing to see that happen to any human being," Tiant says quietly. "I had friends who never saw their family, never saw their country again, and they died. I didn't want that to happen to me. I wasn't getting any younger."

Forty-six years would pass between Tiant's departure and his return to Cuba. In 2007, he coached an amateur baseball team that plays a yearly series on the island against a team of retired Cuban players. His position made a visit legal under the complicated rules of travel between America and Cuba. The trip became the subject of a documentary called The Lost Son of Havana, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York in April. The film wwas shown on ESPN on August 10, and will be seen in selected theaters around the United States throughout the summer and fall.

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